Aditya Sinha: BJP sings Mehbooba, Mehbooba
The late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed towards the end told daughter Mehbooba that come what may, she had to continue their People’s Democratic Party (PDP) alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). She would obviously lead the alliance since she was a full-fledged politician in her own right; installing her as chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir had been Mufti’s final ambition. Delhi — which has always been an interfering, suffocating, repressive presence in Kashmir (more so here than in other states) — would have been happy to be Mehbooba’s junior partner. After all, it was as a part of Mufti’s alliance the BJP ruled J&K for the first time in the Sangh parivar’s history; since the time of Bharatiya Jan Sangh (BJS) founder Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, the BJS-BJP have only known agitational politics in J&K.
Challenges ahead: President of PDP Mehbooba Mufti with brother Mufti Tasaduq, offer special prayers for their father Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. Pic/PTI
Yet, Mehbooba has not rushed into power. One reason is that the BJP kept her father hanging after the last assembly election for over two months (results were declared on December 23, 2014; the government was finally formed on March 1, 2015). It is only fair that Ram Madhav and Amit Shah are similarly kept on the edge of their seats. Her delay has led to speculation that she’s thinking of changing partners, particularly after Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s high-profile visit to grieve with Mehbooba after Mufti’s death. It’s also given Farooq Abdullah and his National Conference (NC) a chance to flash a little thigh at the BJP, in case the latter was looking for a new partner in J&K.
If Mehbooba takes over, however, she cannot ditch the BJP. First, the already fragile relationship between Kashmir, where the PDP won its seats, and Jammu, which voted overwhelmingly for the BJP, would come under perilous strain if there was a government that did not also represent Jammu’s interests. Second, if the BJP is not in a J&K government, then Delhi would be uninterested in maintaining stability in the Valley and Prime Minister Narendra Modi would have less reason to continue seeking peace with Pakistan.
In the interregnum, Mehbooba can tackle the challenges she faces as she takes over her father’s party. Mufti was the party’s founder; of the senior leaders, Mehbooba is one among equals, even if during the 2002 assembly election Mehbooba did the groundwork in building the party, like visiting the families of slain militants — it got the PDP the mantle of “soft separatism”, but also enlarged the number of voters. Being one among equals, it will take time to stamp her authority on the party.
Despite Mufti’s assurance that he would “manage” Delhi, his government’s popularity eroded tremendously in 2015. Not just because Delhi reneged on promises, like the package for relief after the 2014 floods, but also because of the disdain Modi shows towards Kashmir’s political grievances. “For the first time, Kashmiriyat itself is under threat,” a well-known PDP dissident told this columnist. In Mufti’s last public appearance with Modi, at Srinagar in November, the CM gently advised the PM to improve ties with Pakistan. “I don’t need advice from anyone,” Modi brusquely said, and a month later Mufti was in hospital, dying. (Ironically, Modi abruptly began to engage Pakistan.)
Mufti’s government had become so unpopular that since Eid, there was constant talk of toppling it, by a combination of PDP dissidents with the NC. These dissidents remain in the party and Mehbooba must show she can manage them. Also, there were ministers who earned a poor reputation (they were making hay while the sun shone, possibly expecting the government to be short-lived). If Mehbooba expels them, they destabilise her from outside; if she keeps them in the ministry, they will compromise her authority; and if she keeps them but clips their wings, they will create trouble for her from the inside.
But dealing with her own party pales in comparison to dealing with the BJP. Official Delhi does not trust her. The intelligence agencies, who have managed Kashmir from the beginning, do not trust her. For example: in April 2003, when Prime Minister AB Vajpayee was in Srinagar where he famously extended his “hand of friendship” to Pakistan, Mufti as CM joined him on the dias but Mehbooba was not allowed — she was seen with suspicion for her links with separatists. The distrust remains.
National Security Advisor Ajit Doval was a pal of Mufti’s and played a significant role in helping the alliance take shape. Yet no matter how positive he and Mehbooba are, the comfort and trust level cannot be the same. Managing turbulence will be difficult.
It is certain that Mehbooba will be the next CM of J&K, though for how long is unknowable. No wonder NC president Omar Abdullah was on TV saying he was happy to sit in Opposition during “the life of this assembly”. What he likely meant was: “Call me, Mr Modi, call me.”
Journalist and writer Aditya Sinha is the co-author of Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years. He tweets @autumnshade. Send your feedback to email@example.com